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September 10, 2005

Politics meets reality

There is a difference between a State Governor and a United States Senator. It has something to do with why Governors make better presidential candidates, and better presidents, than Senators. Governors are forced, by the nature of their jobs, to deal with reality, and to deal with real people. They are expected to produce tangible accomplishments. Senators, on the other hand, are purely political animals. They are graded on their public positions, on their ability to sell a party line on Sunday morning TV shows. They are professional posturers.

Sometimes people get elected to state governorship who are really political types, not doers. They find the office to be a good platform for pushing their ideology. It's also a good place from which to manage the state political machinery, dole out patronage, and exert control over money (the better to look after campaign donors.) Sometimes these people, despite being mismatched for the job, are able to get by; patronage and pork can bring in votes. Other times, however, events catch up with them. It can get ugly for everyone when that happens.

The weather must frustrate these folks enormously. They cannot lobby it, buy it off, arm-twist it. They can certainly influence public attitudes about the weather, but that doesn't seem to change it. The atmosphere is no respecter of polls. It is a patient foe, however, and can wait decades before calling the government's bluff. Politico's can be lulled into thinking they have it all under control. Sooner or later reality hits hard, and the confident political master is left blustering into a microphone, traumatized to find all his or her well-honed political skills useless.

Meteorologists and hurricane researchers who provide dire predictions are easily ridiculed, and easily dismissed. The people in power have other plans for those moneys, other pockets to fill, so they keep the public chuckling over the doomsayers. (This happens with earthquake predictions, climate research and at one time with those who predicted terrorist attacks.) This sort of bad news is not welcomed, and it is much easier to make the "news" go away than to make the threat go away. To a politician, a prediction of disaster is a public relations problem to be solved with speeches, not a public safety problem to be solved with planning and levees.

Sometimes these people are so good at this that they convince themselves with their own spin. They have been so successful in downplaying forecaster's scary predictions that they themselves don't listen anymore. They tune them out.

In the last week most everyone with some government responsibility has said that "no one could foresee the magnitude of the Katrina disaster." When they say "no one" they mean "me." They couldn't foresee it, because they had stopped listening to the people who make those predictions. In the days prior to Katrina's landfall, the National Weather Service was issuing bulletins laced with almost apocalyptic language. I don't ever remember hearing such strongly worded warnings. According to the detailed timeline from the Washington Post (also at MSNBC), the director of the National Hurricane Center made several personal calls to the state and federal government leaders and officials to make sure they understood the seriousness of the threat. They heard it directly from his lips, but it didn't really register.

Actually, it "registered" in a way. There was no opportunity to discredit the report, everyone, including the voters, can see a storm the size of Texas on the satellite image. They tried to get with the program and used the most potent tool they possess, the impassioned speech. Both Governors were "emoting" very well in their televised appearances, and I expect that they were generally concerned. Afterward they emoted even better, and expressed concern in the gravest possible way. It was probably very genuine concern. It was also totally useless at the time.

When the storm is on your doorstep you don't need "expressions of concern" or even "impassioned pleas", you need a plan. You need a governor who picks up a red phone and says, "execute Plan A", which starts hundreds or thousands of wheels rolling. Then the press secretary can come out and say, "the Governor is executing Disaster Plan A, and is too busy to come out here and cry for the cameras." This time there was no plan. There was plenty of concerned appeals, strongly worded requests, a bit of anger and even a few tears. There were no thousands of wheels rolling to the rescue.

These are the political sorts of Governor, the talky type. Other Governors, less glib and politically polished, understand that the time for concern is in the years before the disaster. In the heat of the moment the Governor is not allowed the opportunity to be "stunned" and "deeply concerned", the Governor needs to be steady and hard, executing the plan without passion.

If you or I walked into a hospital trauma center we would be overwhelmed with emotion and shock, that's a natural reaction. The doctors and nurses cannot allow themselves the "natural reaction." They have prepared themselves for this moment, imagined it and practiced it until they are past the point of shock, and ready to fly into action when the patients arrive. We expect this of airline pilots, military generals, and football quarterbacks. We ought to demand it of our civic leaders.

But we elect people who are great proponents of the ideology, who are smooth talkers and skillful at outmaneuvering people who worry the public about bad storms. We like being lied to, it seems, and the political parties have noticed.

The blame ought to get spread around far and wide after this. The people of Louisiana elected the people who ignored the danger over decades, and were happy to ignore the danger themselves. The people of Mississippi elected leaders who put giant casinos on barges in the Gulf of Mexico and called them "riverboats." They elected the people who rebuilt the communities wiped out in Hurricane Camille in the same flood zone and with the same poor (or missing) building codes. I hate to sound like I'm blaming the victims, but if "the people are sovereign", than the people are responsible for their situation (that is the double-edged sword of freedom.) If you elect a good talker you will get words in abundance, but no action.

The rest of us have some responsibility too. We were quiet when an administration packed FEMA with political appointees; lawyers who had supported the campaign. Based on reports of the first days of the response, it can be safely said that the disaster was "well lawyered."

Certainly some bureaucratic heads ought to roll after the situation stabilizes. I would like to see a few elected heads roll in the next election too. In fact I'd be thrilled if the voting public came to realize that we have placed our trust, and our fates, in the hands of flatterers and posturers. We can investigate who is responsible for bad decisions and inaction, but are we strong enough face our responsibility for crummy leadership?

Posted by Jay on September 10, 2005 at 11:18 PM | Permalink

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